Posted by Neal on August 21, 2006
My friend Lonnie put me onto an occasional feature in Slate called “The Good Word,” which I have put on my blogroll as a linguistics blog, since its content seemed to fit there best. Some of the pieces I’ve liked have been about offensive language. The most recent of them is Seth Stevenson’s defense of suck, even though I don’t agree with him that the word has entirely lost its oral-sex-related meaning. Maybe it has for some younger speakers, but for anyone who says something “sucks dick” to indicate that it really sucks, at least some of the original meaning is there. Then there’s Jesse Sheidlower’s piece on scumbag, whose etymology surprised me. He pokes around at the question of what makes a word vulgar. Is it vulgar if it has a vulgar origin but people don’t realize it (like some users of suck)? What if people think it has a vulgar origin but it doesn’t? Finally there’s John Cook’s discussion of retarded, which includes a funny quotation from the very doctor who diagnosed Adam with PDD-NOS.
Meanwhile, on Language Log, Geoff Pullum has written about something I’ve been meaning to write about for months, but never got around to. Here is a sentence from a semantics paper by Daniel Rothschild of Princeton University:
“The F is G” is true just in case there is exactly one F and it satisfies G. (link)
If your grammar is like mine (and everyone else’s I know), you read that and said, “What? How can something be true in order to be prepared in the event that ‘there is exactly one F and it satisfies G’? That sounds like you’re choosing for it to be true, but either it’s true or it’s not, right?” But after you read a few more papers in formal linguistics that use just in case the same way, you get so you can mentally replace just in case with only in the case where and move on. Read Pullum’s thoughts on the matter here.
Here’s one more from Pullum, which I bring up because it’s on one of my favorite topics, backformation. And since we’re on the subject of backformation and it’s time for
going back-to-school, here’s a link to a post of my own for those who haven’t been reading this blog since August 2004.